Elective Affinities: German art since the late 1960s

  • 2016-06-29
  • Michael Mustillo

Elective Affinities, which opened on Jun. 16 at the Arsenals Exhibition Hall in Riga, is the most extensive exhibition of contemporary German art in Latvian history. The exhibition runs until Aug. 21.
The importance and scope of the exhibition is based not only on the number and size of the artworks, but on its total value, more than 100 million euros.

Officiating the opening were the German Ambassador to Latvia, Rolf Schulte; Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis; Minister of Culture Dace Melbardis; National Art Museum director, Mara Lace; and the exhibitions curator, Mark Gisborne.
Elective Affinities offers an impressive panorama of contemporary German art, featuring 77 artworks by 53 artists, and includes painting, sculptures, photographs, video installations, and a few examples of conceptual art produced from the late 1960s up to the present day.

The title of the exhibition is based on “Die Wahlverwandschaften” (Elective Affinities), the third novel by the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which was published in 1809.
Goethe’s “Die Wahlverwandschaften” is based on the metaphor of human relations, interactions, and passions, and appears ideal as an approach to an exhibition that includes differing viewpoints of artistic production. The metaphor’s essence encourages perceptions of a diverse set of artistic manifestations.

The exhibition highlights connections, correspondences, and derivations, which are created through the interaction of the artworks. These almost chemical reactions, which in Goethe’s novel form through characters and human characteristics, are echoed in the concept of the exhibition.

The idea of an organically unifying framework for very diverse artworks offers exhibition visitors a unique opportunity to compare the work of artists spanning several generations, actively looking for linkages so as to avoid passive observations, instead shaping individual interpretations.

In his opening remarks the German Ambassador to Latvia, Rolf Schulte, stated that the
Goethe Institut will host a conference in August of this year that will address questions such as “The Redeeming Role of Art in the Making of Modern Germany,” “The Internationalisation of German Art,” and “Art Strategies Within Post-Unification Germany.”

“The topics of these three panel discussions already contain catchwords which are of greatest relevance for identifying post-war German art: ‘redemption,’ ‘internationalisation,’ and ‘post-unification,’” said Ambassador Schulte.
These three periods distinguish German post-war art.
“Redemption: It has often been observed that World War Two was a trauma for everyone involved, especially Germany’s victims, but also for many Germans as citizens of the country of the perpetrators of the most horrific crimes,” explained Schulte.

“Thus, it cannot come as a surprise that many German artists growing up in the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust were uniquely driven by pangs of national guilt and suffering as they searched for a new identity in the self-destructive wreckage of their country and its culture.
“They thus created some of the most powerful images to confront the German people with this past.”
Can this also be seen as a “redeeming role of art”?

“Internationalisation: When you look at the facts and figures published by international auction houses, artists from Germany — both painters and photographers — have seen unprecedented success in recent years,” said Schulte.
German post-war artists have had great international success.

The ambassador noted that “Not only is Joseph Beuys considered to be the most important and influential performance artist. Not only is Gerhard Richter currently the top-selling living artist world-wide. Neo-expressionists like Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Jorg Immendorff, A. R. Penck, Martin Kippenberger, Rainer Fetting, and Markus Lupertz are considered giants of not only German, but international contemporary art.”
In other art fields they are joined by renowned names of the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Schutte, Neo Rauch, Gunther Ucker, Thomas Struth, Rosemarie Trockel, and others.

Many of the artists came originally from East Germany, but left for the West before the GDR constructed the Wall in 1961.
“Some had still trained in East Germany, but it was in the West that their careers were established. As a generation, they came out of the experience of growing up in the aftermath of a Germany defeated in the Second World War, and its subsequent partition in 1949,” said Ambassador Schulte.
“It would be interesting to look at the question of how this personal history of experiencing Germany’s physical and psychological destruction and its division by two opposing ideologies, but also the country being reunited after four decades, is reflected in their respective artwork.”

The artworks in the exhibition originated from 45 different collections. The importance and scope of the exhibition is based not only on the number and size of the artworks, but also on their total value, which is valued more than 100 million euros.
“It is all but impossible to show the enormous canvas of contemporary German art with the help of 70 or more artworks,” said the distinguished critic and international exhibition curator Mark Gisbourne.
“This exhibition represents an attempt to offer a more or less objective scene, with the exhibition being divided up into four thematic blocs so as to mark out the main aspects, themes, and developmental trajectories of German art and culture in the post-war period.”

Gisborne wanted to provide the Latvian audience with a look at the diversity of German art so that they can examine the work of world-famous artists in a direct and intimate manner.
More that 20 art collectors, gallery owners, and museum specialists from Germany, Italy, and the United States had travelled to Riga for the exhibition’s opening.
Elective Affinities marks a new period in cultural contacts between Latvia and Germany. In July, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Germany, Professor Monika Grutters, will travel to Riga to visit the exhibition.